Tag Archive | Language

The Construction of Scientific Facts

“The result of the construction of a fact is that it appears unconstructed by anyone; the result of rhetorical persuasion in the agnostic field is that participants are convinced that they have not been convinced; the result of materialisation is that people can swear that material considerations are only minor components of the “thought process”; the result of the investments of credibility is that participants can claim that economics and beliefs are in no way related to the solidity of science; as to the circumstances, they simply vanish from accounts, being better left to political analysis than to an appreciation of the hard and solid world of facts!”

Latour, Bruno & Steve Woolgar (1986). Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 284.

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Today I have mostly been learning about… “bullshit”

The name of this post echoes my previous, much longer post entitled Today I have mostly been learning about… “Fuck”. However, it would be somewhat of a lie to say that I had been spending most of my day on this…

As you’ll see from the citation, this was from a book on Qualitative Methods. However, it amused and intrigued me… and thanks to my amazing OCR software and scanner, this took little effort. So without further ado, enjoy learning a bit about ‘bullshit’:

Bullshit in the outback

Of all the definitions of ‘bullshit’ read so far, I’ve yet to find one that discusses the source himself, the bull. I’m speaking from many years experience of working with, and observing, wild cattle in our far north. Like the males of other animal species, wild bulls often fight over harem rights. Typically they go through a display routine something akin to ‘come any closer, and I’ll punch your lights out!’.There’s a lot of bluffing, swaggering, mouthing off, and literally bullshitting. The process might go on for minutes or hours, but all the while the bulls are constantly dribbling shit from the back end and paddling it around with their tail. You can always tell when a bull is in fighting mode because his arse-end is smothered in green slime. They circle around each other with their noses down, pawing up as much dust as they can (think ‘bulldust’), bawling each other out and sniffing at each other’s shit. Does that sound like some academic discussions you’ve witnessed! The point is, the issue of who wins is most often settled in these preliminaries. The process might go on for a while, but one or the other has already conquered, without the potential danger of actually locking horns. One short rush and it’s all over. In conversations among the stockmen, use of the term ‘bullshit’ was almost invariably in this context. If someone was suspected of bluffing/boasting/overstating their ability to ride, root, drink or fight, then he was ‘full of bullshit’ or ‘bullshitting’ or simply dismissed with ‘Ahh bullshit!’. (Eric Whittle personal communication, 2006)

From Silverman, D., 2007. A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book About Qualitative Research, Los Angeles, Calif: SAGE, p. 122.

The Different Perceptions of Swearing between Dutch and British Christian Students

I came across this in my reading last night, and couldn’t resist sharing it – mostly for the benefit of my friend Mieke. However, it does have a serious point… makes us think twice about what words offend us, especially if judging that offence to be justified by the Bible.

‘Swearing, perhaps unsurprisingly, was an area in which CSL [Leiden University Christian Union] members tended to be slightly differentiated though not to the same extent as OICCU and AUCU [Oxford and Aberdeen University Christian Unions] members. Differentiation was clear but it was complicated by the fact that the orientation of Dutch swearing is very different from that of English. Male members did not have any difficulty using swearwords that they knew to be sexual and even the female members had no problem using English swearwords (which was common [116] in Holland) which they knew to be sexual. One female member was amazed when I informed her of just how rude some English people thought that the word ‘fuck’ was. Members commented that they would use these various sexual and bodily Dutch swearwords if they were angry but tried not to. This included terms such as ‘shit’ and ‘klootzak’ (scrotum) and I would suggest that OICCU members in particular tended to reject equivalent English swearwords which were middle-ranking in terms of their perceived offensiveness such as ‘shit’. However, all CSL members did reject the strongest Dutch swearword – Godverdomme (Old Dutch for ‘God damn it’). They argued that this word was ‘insulting’, ‘disrespectful’ and even ‘forbidden by the Bible’. All but two were not even prepared to use its disguised version ‘Godverdikemme’. A non-religious Dutch student – who tried to explain Dutch swearing to me in a bar – found Godverdomme so offensive that he was not prepared to say it and, to the mirth of his friends, insisted on writing it down on a beer mat for me. However, in a sense it is difficult to compare the issue of swearing. As discussed, both OICCU and AUCU members mainly rejected profanity which is generally perceived as mild swearing in England and Scotland. However CSL members were rejecting only the strongest forms of swearing. This could reflect a low level of differentiation but it is made more complex because the reasons for the rejection may be different. On the surface, at least, the level of differentiation with regard to swearing appears to be low. Certainly religious Netherlanders found ‘God damn it’ very offensive. On one occasion I recall saying ‘damn’ in front of two Dutch evangelical Christians because they had neglected to buy any milk to go with the tea for the British evening, not knowing that the British had milk in tea. For comic effect I said, ‘damn’ – the mildest swear-word I could think of in the context of an English-language conversation, in British English at least. They evidently could not believe what they were hearing and one of them just gasped, ‘Excuse me? Can you not say that?!”

From Edward Dutton, 2008. Meeting Jesus at University: Rites of Passage and Student Evangelicals. Aldershot: Ashgate, pp. 115-116.

Christianism

I  thought this was going to be a particularly inspired and insightful post, but a few seconds of Google searches have once again convinced me that I haven’t hit on anything particularly new… however, I still think the thoughts are worth sharing.

I was reading Walter Capps’ insanely dull Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline yesterday, when I had a moment of inspiration. Why is it that “we”, in the Anglophone West, refer to ChristianITY as a religion, yet almost all other religious groupings are referred to as ISMs?

In a short brainstorming session I managed to come up with:

Hinduism

Buddhism

Sikhism

Mormonism

Unitarianism

Seventh Day Adventism

Paganism

Atheism

Agnosticism

Humanism

Secularism

Bahai’ism

Jainism

Daoism

Confucianism

Judaism

Christian Scientism

Zoroastrianism

Spiritualism

Shamanism

With all these “isms”, what is it that is so unique about Christianity that makes both scholars and laypeople avoid referring to it as Christianism or Christism?

Well, the first obvious response to this, is that it isn’t unique. I also managed to think of a few major “religious” groupings which are not commonly referred to as “isms”:

Islam

Wicca

Scientology

Shinto

New Age

Well… as for Islam, I have definitely heard the term “Islamism” used on more than one occasion in academic discourse… and I am fairly sure that I have heard reference made to Shintoism as well (the very fact that it has shown up in the spellchecker on this terrible Mac indicates that this may not be an erroneous recollection).

As for the others, well… it is fair to say that whether or not their adherents would claim that they are recent phenomena or not, the fact is that Scientology and Wicca have emerged comparatively recently, and that New Age (if it could even be called a distinct “religion” at all) has only really emerged in the past 50-100 years. The point here is that these groupings have emerged, in the Anglophone context, long after the classificatory enterprise was embarked upon and thus in an environment where people were intuitively aware of the implicit Christian bias in religious labels.

It is well known in Religious Studies circles that the term “Hinduism” emerged from the pejorative phrase “Indoo”, used by the British to describe the multifarious groups of people living in the Indus Valley. This term was then re-appropriated by those same people as a form of identity, whereas beforehand there was nothing in particular to link any of the the various religious beliefs and practices which occurred in that location. My point here is not to get into a debate on whether “Hinduism” is a religion or not, but to point out that the very label “Hinduism” was determined by English speakers… and most likely by English speaking Christians. I wish I had the time to reference this properly, and to make my point more clearly but my point is essentially this:

  • The standard terminology applied to various “religions” in the English language privileges “Christianity” simply because it was English-speaking Christians who devised the “ism” labels for “other” religions.
  • In recent times, new religions have emerged which also do not have an “-ism” tagged on to the end of their name, but this is BECAUSE they have emerged in a more reflexive “politically-correct” time.
  • As long as scholars persist in applying “-ism” labels to non-Christian religions, then referring to “Christianity” as “Christianism” is a more fair and balanced approach.
  • The argument that “Christians refer to their religion as Christianity, therefore so should scholars” does not apply, because we do not apply this same standard to all other “religions”

It seems that I am not the first person to have thought of the label “Christianism”…

According to http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Christianism:

Finally, Brown published Communism and Christianism (Galion, Ohio, 1920), with its inscription to “Banish Gods from Skies and Capitalists from Earth William Montgomery Brown (1855-1937): The Southern Episcopal Bishop … by Bolton, S. Charles / Journal of Southern History

 

So, in 1920, at least William Montgomery Brown was referring to a Christianism of some sort.
More recently, according to the Wikipedia article on “Christianism”

 

Christianism (or Christianist) is a pejorative term for the ideology of the Christian right, meant as a counterpoint to “Islamism”. Writing in 2005, the New York Times language columnist William Safire attributed the term (in its modern usage) to conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan, who wrote on June 1, 2003:  “I have a new term for those on the fringes of the religious right who have used the Gospels to perpetuate their own aspirations for power, control and oppression: Christianists. They are as anathema to true Christians as the Islamists are to true Islam.”

The liberal bloggers Tristero and David Neiwert used the term shortly after. Sullivan later expanded on his usage of the term in a Time magazine column. Uses of the term can be found dating back to the seventeenth century, but these are unrelated to its modern meaning.

I am NOT proposing to utilise Christianism in this sense… but it is intriguing to see the linguistic games that are being played out around this issue.
I know I have not thought things through very well… but I thought this was something well worth giving more thought to. Religious Studies as a field has, for all its supposed neutrality, an incredible built-in Christian bias… and maybe this has a lot to do with the very terminology that we use. I look forward to properly reading into this issue in more depth, and if anyone has anything they feel like sharing on this issue I would love to hear it!

Today I have mostly been learning about… “Fuck”

I was reading the wonderful and intentionally provocatively titled article “Fuck” by Christopher M. Fairman (published in March 2006 in the Public Law and Legal Theory Working Paper Series No. 59/Centre for Interdisciplinary Law and Policy Studies Working Paper Series No. 39 and available for free online here) and thought I should share some of my favourite parts of it with you.

Some of this will be direct quotations, some will be my own paraphrases, some will be my own additions… and there is not going to be any coherent narrative, but I thought a lot of people out there might share my affection for the word “fuck” and its variants, and appreciate learning something new about it and hearing some amusing legal stories from this serious scholarly article. Many thanks to Edwina Smith for passing it in my direction.

Here we go…. 15 things you wanted to know about fuck:

1. Previous studies on the word “fuck” have included Leo Stone’s On the Principal Obscene Word of the English Language (1954) and Allen Walker Read’s An Obscenity Symbol (1934), “fifteen pages and eighty-two footnotes penned without once printing the word fuck anywhere in the article”.

2. In 2002, a man called Timothy Boomer was canoeing on the Rifle River in Michigan. He fell overboard and let out a few fucks. A nearby Sheriff gave him a ticket citing an 1897 statute – “Any person who shall use any indecent, immoral, obscene, vulgar or insulting language in the presence or hearing of any woman or child shall be guilty of a misdemeanor”. Boomer was then convicted and sentenced to a $75 fine and 4 days community service.

3. “Fuck is a taboo word. According to psycholinguists, its taboo status is likely due to our deep, subconscious feelings about sex. The taboo is so strong that it compels many to engage in self-censorship. However, refraining from the use of fuck only reinforces the taboo. In the process, silence empowers small segments of the population to manipulate our rights under the guise of reflecting the greater community. Taboo is then institutionalised through law, yet at the same time is in tension with other identifiable legal rights. Understanding this relationship between law and taboo ultimately yields fuck jurisprudence. However, all the attempts to curtail the use of fuck through law are doomed to fail. Fundamentally, fuck persists because it is taboo, not in spite of it.”

4. One potential first occurrence of fuck is in a Scottish poem by William Dunbar:

“Yit be his feiris he wald haif fukkit / Ye brek my hairt, my bony ane”

William Dunbar, Ane Brash of Wowing (1503)

5. “During the last Egyptian dynasties, legal documents were sealed with the phrase, “As for him who shall disregard it, may he be fucked by a donkey.” The hieroglyphic for the phrase – two large erect penises – makes the message clear.”

6. Fuck did not appear in any widely-read English dictionary from 1795 to 1965.

7. Jesse Sheidlower’s dictionary “The F-Word” is now in its second edition and spans 272 pages, devoted entirely to the word fuck and its variants. These range from absofuckinglutely – “an adverb meaning absolutely” – to zipless fuck – “a noun meaning an act of intercourse without an emotional connection”. My personal favourite uses of fuck would have to be clusterfuck and skullfuck… although I shan’t attempt definitions.

8. An interesting article entitled “Bush’s Obscene Tirades Rattle White House Aides” (August 25, 2005)

9. Someone was thrown off a flight for wearing this t-shirt:

Meet the Fuckers

Check out the full story in the NY times here.

10. “Thais speakers in an English environment do not use certain Thai words because they sound like taboo English words, such as the Thai words fâg (sheath), fág (to hatch) and phrig (chili pepper). Similarly , Thai speakers avoid using English words, such as yet, that sound similar to taboo Thai words, such as jéd, a taboo Thai word for sexual intercourse.”

11. “Word taboo is irrational. it is one thing to ban certain acts; as a society we are probably better off. But to proscribe naming those same acts makes no sense. Yet that is precisely what we do. In the case of fuck, the taboo is also unhealthy. Emerging from an unhealthy attitude about sex, fuck is an example of what Read calls a “word fetish”. The extreme emotional response to the word only serves to perpetuate negative attitudes toward sex.”

12. Dooling: a person “with four lifetimes and a burning desire to find out whether he may scream ‘Fuck!’ in a crowded theatre will come away in confusion if he looks for his answer in the opinions of the Supreme Court.”

13. “By far the most important victory for breaking the word taboo comes in Cohen v. California – the “Fuck the Draft” case – where the Court comes to terms with this four-letter word. In protest of the Vietnam War and the draft, Paul Cohen wore a jacket bearing the phrase “Fuck the Draft” while in the Los Angeles County Courthouse. Cohen didn’t threaten to or engage in violence or make any loud or unusual noises. All he did was walk through the corridor of a public building wearing a jacket. He was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to thirty days in jail for violating a California statute prohibiting malicious and willful disruption of the peace by offensive conduct.”

14. Statistically, men swear more than women… according to some research amongst Midwest college students men are 40% more likely to use fuck, and 60% more likely to use motherfucker.

15. “Even when fuck-based, gender specific insults are found, such as “fucking fat bitch,” if the alleged harasser also refers to men with fuck-based, gender-specific insults, such as the “fucking new guy”, the complained-of language does not establish a sex harassment claim. The use of foul language in front of both men and women is not discrimination based on sex. However, comments such as “fucking bitch”, “dumb fucking broads” and “fucking cunts” were-gender specific. Judge Fletcher of the Ninth Circuit wrote in Steiner v. Showboat Operating Company, “[i]t is one thing to call a woman ‘worthless’, and another to call her a ‘worthless broad’.””

And there you have it… who knew fuck could be such a fascinating word?